Blair or Brown? Brown or Cameron? Or should we look to more ‘radical alternatives’, like Respect or the BNP, who claim to be different from the usual gang of politicians?
All the politicians, from far right to far left, want to manage the existing state, the existing economy. They want to make the existing state machine and the existing economic system more efficient, more profitable, or more ’democratic’. But the existing economic system is based on the exploitation of our labour power. It can only prosper at our expense. And in any case, today it is not prospering: it is sunk in a profound crisis. And the only response to the crisis by the politicians and other managers of the system is to try to cut costs by further reducing our living standards and by further ransacking the environment. It is to make the national economy compete better against other national economies, which not only means intensifying our exploitation, but also serves to drag the whole planet into a spiral of imperialist conflicts and wars.
All the alternatives offered by the official political parties are false alternatives. The real alternative is offered by the struggles of our class brothers and sisters, in Britain, France, Spain, America, Argentina, India or China, against the attacks on living standards and the effects of the economic crisis. It is through these struggles that we will discover our own interests, our own ability to organise, our own power to paralyse the existing system and replace it with a society based on the needs of humanity.
A month ago all talk was of how soon Blair should step down as prime minister. Today the focus is on John Prescott, and how soon he should go now he no longer has a cabinet department to run. He has described himself as a ‘shield’, being attacked as a proxy for Tony Blair. In other words this is all part of the campaign to put pressure on the PM and the Labour government. This is the only way to make sense of the campaign: the use of subordinate staff, such as Prescott’s diary secretary, for sexual favours may be scandalous but it is hardly unusual for powerful politicians; the use of lavish grace and favour properties such as Dorneywood is also normal for our political rulers.
The focus on the Deputy Prime Minister follows a whole series of scandals about the government, and an increasing number of articles looking at the advantages of replacing Blair with either Gordon Brown or David Cameron, and more recently of replacing Prescott, or even Blair, with Alan Johnson. And as we write this, more cabinet ministers are vying for the deputy PM job.
This doesn’t mean that the government is not doing a good job for the ruling class. Far from it. The bourgeoisie needs a governing team that can manage the economy in open crisis, and that means being able to deliver constant attacks on the working class. Right from the start, in 1997, the Blair government made it clear that it had no intention of changing the policies of its predecessor, whose spending plans would not be exceeded. Attacks on the unemployed and others relying on benefit were a feature of every budget, with each ‘new deal’ or ‘hand up, not hand out’ representing a new way of forcing them off benefits. When Rover went bust at the time of the last general election, there was hardly a pretence of a government rescue. And now that the crisis is getting worse, with the so-called ‘Brownian miracle’ at an end, the attacks are accelerating. Cost limits imposed by the government are leading to thousands of redundancies in the health service. The pension age is to set to go on rising and pensions are more precarious. Competition and payment by results are being brought in for education.
The Blair government has served the ruling class well in other ways. Repression has increased: more jails for children, tougher sentences, 28 days detention without due process for suspected terrorists, shoot to kill for suspected terrorists in the streets and on the underground. And in the last few days we have seen a terrorist suspect shot in his own home in East London, but so far no weapons have been found. Since this government came in it has competed with the opposition to hurl the most insults at ‘bogus’ asylum seekers, to introduce the most repressive measures of deportation, and to use immigrants as a scapegoat for all the problems faced by workers today.
Nor has the government disappointed the ruling class in defending its imperialist interests abroad. So far as possible it has stayed close enough to the USA, in order to keep in the game in Iraq and Afghanistan, while trying to maintain its independence (see page 8). All in all a very good job for the ruling class.
A change of face in no. 10, when it comes, will not mean a change in policy. Neither would a change in governing party. It is not just that Blair is in so many ways the continuator of Thatcherism, but Thatcher herself was only continuing attacks begun under the previous Labour government. If we remember the 1980s for the phenomenal rise in unemployment, we should also remember that the 1979 Tory election slogan, ‘Labour isn’t working’, referred to the rise in unemployment under the Callaghan government. When the Tories introduced cuts, such as those in shipbuilding and steel, they were “merely putting into practice policies drawn up by the previous Labour administration” (WR 25, August 1979).
Today, David Cameron has made it clear that a new Tory government would largely continue the policies of the present administration. The Conservatives have even supported the government on the Education Bill.
So why change the government? When Thatcher came in it was after the ‘winter of discontent’, a wave of strikes led by council workers against the policy of holding wages down in the face of inflation – wage cuts in real terms. The Callaghan government had failed to keep control of the working class. A period of very important class struggle was opening up – the steel strike and later the miners’ strike in Britain in the 1980s were only part of a wave of class struggle around the world. In these conditions, having the left party in opposition was vital to help the government bring in its attacks because it provided a safe, i.e. useless, channel for workers’ protest against the attacks on their jobs and living conditions.
When the Labour government was elected in 1997, we were in a period of retreat in the class struggle. After 18 years of Tory governments there was a need for a change. However well they were doing, if they went on for much longer as a much hated party, continually being re-elected, democracy was going to look pretty threadbare.
Today we have a government that has won three general elections and has brought in many attacks on the working class. This has led to a build-up of discontent in the working class, and we are now entering a new period of class struggles internationally. The student struggles against the CPE in France were the most advanced in the search for solidarity from workers already in employment, in the choice of demands relevant to the whole class, and in the organisation of the struggle through general assemblies and revocable delegates. While that struggle was still going on there were large scale movements in Germany and Britain – tens of thousands of state employees striking against wage cuts and increases in the working week in Germany, a million council workers in Britain striking against attacks on pensions. These struggles were not so advanced as the struggles in France, but important for the international simultaneity of the movement, for the fact that workers are ready to struggle not just in one country, but across the most important countries in Europe and the world.
Nor is this just a flash in the pan. In Spain the metalworkers of Vigo organised massive general assemblies on the streets (see page 3). In Britain, we have seen the issue of solidarity posed very clearly in the Heathrow strike last year, as well as by postal workers in Belfast and power workers at Cottam more recently; workers at Ellesmere Port responded to the announcement of redundancies by walking out on the spot (see page 2).
This does not mean that we are facing a situation identical to 1979, when the bourgeoisie had to change the governing team very rapidly in order to control the working class. Nor are we in a situation like 1997, when democracy would lose credibility if they kept bringing back the same unpopular government election after election. But the ruling class is preparing its options because it knows it will need to change its governing team sooner or later in order to be able to continue its policy of attacks on pensions, jobs, health and education, as well as the defence of its imperialist interest in Iraq and Afghanistan. WR, 4.6.6